A Northeastern Professor is Using Aquatic Drones to Measure How Quickly Icebergs are Melting

ECE Professor Hanumant Singh is using his Jetyak to create detailed 3D maps of icebergs in Greenland’s Sermilik Fjord with the intent of giving climate scientists a clearer picture of how they are melting and impacting the oceans.

This article originally appeared on Northeastern Global News. It was published by Cody Mello-Klein. Main photo: A Jetyak floats in the waters off Greenland. Northeastern University Photo

It’s a drone, it’s a kayak, it’s a Jetyak.

Floating in the frigid waters off Greenland, Hanumant Singh’s aquatic, autonomous vehicle is, by all appearances, a regular, gas-powered kayak waiting for someone to hop inside. But the sensor-strapped drone is much more than that. The Jetyak has become a frontline worker in scientific efforts to better understand the effects of climate change and the toll it’s taking on the planet’s oceans.

With icebergs increasingly breaking off of Greenland’s icecaps due to climate change, the region has increasingly become an area of focus for climate scientists. But until recently it’s been hard to measure how quickly these massive chunks of ice are melting and impacting the oceans.

That’s where Singh, an electrical and computer engineering professor at Northeastern University, and his Jetyak come in. Strapped with sensors, the Jetyak has been creating detailed 3D maps of icebergs in Greenland’s Sermilik Fjord with the intent of giving climate scientists a clearer picture.

“You can see how things are changing over the course of months or years, but we are really interested in saying, ‘What are the phenomena on the ground?’” Singh says.

Two people work to measure how quickly icebergs are melting in a laboratory.Three people work to measure how quickly icebergs are melting in a laboratory.

Hanumant Singh, a Northeastern University professor of electrical and computer engineering, works on the JetYak with PhD students Vikrant Shah and Yang Liu in the Interdisciplinary Science & Engineering Complex. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

Understanding those phenomena is vitally important for climate scientists. Warmer oceanic water has been creeping into Greenland’s fjords and up toward the glaciers, causing them to melt from beneath. Melting freshwater entering the ocean will have dramatic effects on the way water circulates around the world, impacting ecosystems the world over.

“We are imaging people, and [climate scientists] were using our robot for doing CTDs–– conductivity, temperature and depth [tests],” Singh says. “We’re trying to see how this oceanic sea water is approaching and how the cold water, which is meltwater off the iceberg, is interacting with the waters around it.”

The boat that serves as the foundation for the Jetyak is 11 feet long and weighs 165 pounds but carries a hardware payload of 360 pounds. It can move up to 20 miles per hour and run for eight to 10 hours on 3 gallons of gas.

In 2013, Singh used an early prototype to measure freshwater flow near Greenland’s glaciers. During that trip, he saw another group of scientists who were using a helicopter to land on icebergs and install GPS moorings to measure the changing height of icebergs as they melt. Watching the danger they were putting themselves in, he thought, “There has to be a better, safer way to capture this data.”

Read full story at Northeastern Global News.

Related Faculty: Hanumant Singh

Related Departments:Electrical & Computer Engineering